Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The Amazing Race 30, Episode 7

Harare (Zimbabwe) - Manama (Bahrain) - Chiang Mai (Thailand)

This week The Amazing Race passed through Bahrain. Bahrain is a small desert island city-state, but the teams of travellers faced unexpected difficulties finding their way around, both driving and on foot. I’ve had some of these same problems finding my way around in places like this, and have written about them when previous seasons of The Amazing Race have passed through similar nearby countries.

What was new, as the voiceover narration pointed out, was that this was the first time The Amazing Race had visited Bahrain, despite multiple previous visits to other countries of the Arabian peninsula and the Arabian/Persian Gulf: the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait.

That’s typical, as is the fact that the racers flew in and out of Bahrain via Dubai even though there are direct flights from Addis Ababa (the foremost African air hub) to Bahrain, and Bahrain to Bangkok, which would have spared the racers a change of planes on each leg. Today, Bahrain is both less visited by tourists from outside the region and less well-known as an air transport hub than several of its neighbors. Despite the glitzy technopolitan skyline that provided the backdrop to this TV episode, the reality is that Bahrain is playing catchup to its neighbors for airline transit traffic and destination or stopover tourism.

It hasn’t always been that way.

Bahrain was the first international airport in the region and an important refueling stop between Europe and India as early as the 1930s, and grew in facilities and importance as a military transport hub during World War II.

The story of post-World War II civil avation in the Gult and the founding in Bahrain in 1950 of the airline that eventually became Gulf Air is told in fictionalized form (and with an overlay of pure fantasy) in Nevil Shute’s best-selling 1951 novel, Round the Bend. Nevil Shute is best known as the author of On the Beach and other novels, but his first career was an an aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer, as chronicled in his non-fiction memoir, Slide Rule: The Autobiography of an Engineer. Many of his novels were set in the milieu of aviation and engineering.

Gulf Air was the first, and for decades remained by far the largest, passenger airline in the region. By the 1980s, it was the jointly-owned national “flag carrier” of the U.A.E., Muscat and Oman, and Qatar. While the headquarters remained in Bahrain (BAH), it was also the dominant airline for both regional and long-haul services to and from Dubai (DXB), Abu Dhabi (AUH), Muscat (MCT), Doha (DOH), and Sharjah (SHJ).

The consortium of hereditary monarchs and ruling families that owned Gulf Air began to break up when the emir of Dubai decided to start his own airline in 1985, and sold back his share of Gulf Air. Emirates was followed by Oman Air and Qatar Airways in 1993, and Etihad (based in Abu Dhabi) and Air Arabia (based in Sharjah, where the airport is primarily a cargo rather than a passenger hub) in 2003. That left the government of Bahrain holding the bag as the sole owner of Gulf Air, saddled with an older and less-efficient fleet than any of its newer competitors.

Unlike Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways, Gulf Air never extended its route system to the Americas, although it has flights to places in Australia as far from Bahrain as the US West Coast would be. Not trying to compete on trans-Atlantic routes may be a sound business decision, but it has left Gulf Air and Bahrain even further behind in American mindshare than airlines and cities promoting direct flights to and from the US, Canada, and Latin America.

Bahrain’s efforts to attract a larger share of tourism from outside the region isn’t helped by its geography. Bahrain is a small cluster of connected islands — the smallest of the Gulf micro-states — linked to Saudi Arabia by a 25 kilometer (16 mile) chain of bridges and causeways. Saudia Arabia is of course the big visitor draw in the region, but mostly for Hajj and Umrah pilgrimmages to Mecca and Medina. It’s difficult for non-Muslims to get visas to enter Saudi Arabia as tourists, so most non-Muslim visitors to Bahrain aren’t allowed across the causeway.

As in Saudi Arabia, the ruling family of Bahrain professes Wahabbi fundamentalism. But the enforcement of religious law is significantly less draconian in Bahrain than in Saudi Arabia or some of the other Gulf states, making Bahrain attractive as a recreational and shopping getaway destination for visitors from elsewhere in the region. But Bahrain has never developed much, if any, global image.

Of all the around-the-world travellers to whom I sold tickets on Gulf Air with connections in Bahrain, I can’t remember any who chose to stop over any longer than necessary to catch the next onward flight. They were more likely to complain about long connections in Bahrain (Gulf Air flights tend to be scheduled for the convenience of locals, not to optimize connections between other places) rather than welcome them as a chance for a stopover tour of the city of Manama and other parts of the island of Bahrain.

Places that are cosmopolitan by regional terms, but have few US or “Western” visitors, can be quite interesting. I wouldn’t go out of my way to make Bahrain a destination on its own, but I wouldn’t pass up a chance to stop over for a few days if I found myself changing planes there.

Have any of you been to Bahrain? What was it like?

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 14 February 2018, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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